The Ten Commandments: A Classic Returns Just in Time for Holy Week
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Fraser Heston, producer, director and son of the legendary actor, Charlton Heston, talks about the newly restored version of "The Ten Commandments" as well as a re-released of "Charlton Heston Presents The Bible."
WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Just in time for Holy Week, Paramount pictures is releasing a fully restored High Definition version of Cecil B. DeMille's classic "The Ten Commandments." Filmed in 1956 and starring Charlton Heston, the epic movie set a new standard for beauty and pageantry on the big screen. It will now be offered in Blue-ray, DVD and as a special gift set with both versions along with other offerings.
At the same time, Warner Home Video is releasing "Charlton Heston Presents the Bible," a documentary series consisting of four films - "Genesis," "The Story of Moses," "Jesus of Nazareth," and "The Passion."
I recently had a chance to talk with Fraser Heston, the son of the late Charlton Heston about his father and these two projects. Fraser was an executive producer for the Bible documentary series. As a point of interest, he was born during the filming of "The Ten Commandments," so DeMille had him play the infant Moses!
Fraser Heston is a director, producer and screenwriter. His filmography includes "Alaska" and the 1990 version of "Treasure Island," which cast his father as Long John Silver.
At age 22-year-old Fraser wrote his first screenplay, "The Mountain Men," for Columbia Pictures, which became the critically acclaimed feature film.
RWS: Fraser, I appreciate this opportunity to spend a little time with you.
Fraser: Oh, it's my pleasure.
RWS: One of the things we wanted to do of course is focus on the Ten Commandents restoration project as well as the Bible Stories documentary. But, just looking at your life, it's really great to see how many opportunities you had to work with your father. Would you just talk about that and what it was like to work as a father and son on the same films over the years?
Fraser: You know, one of the wonderful gifts that I've been given in my life is the opportunity to work with my dad as a colleague and collaborator and business partner for so many years after I became an adult. Many people have good relationships with their parents and I had a wonderful relationship when I was a child.
[It was great] to be able to come back and live and work together with my dad, who I loved so much and he was such a good father and turned out to be a great partner and collaborator as I say as well. It was an amazing time for us and kind of a little bonus thing in my life.
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I look back on it and hope he knew how much I appreciated that. Obviously, we didn't stop to talk about that sort of thing. But we hung out together in the evenings. We'd often have adjoining flats in London when we made all those pictures in England.
When we made the Bible of course, we were able to go to the Holy Land and travel around to where it all actually happened. That was pretty cool.to be able to go.you know we didn't just read the Bible stories in front of a curtain here in Hollywood.
We actually went there, hiked through the dust, sweated under the sun, climbed into the ruins and canyons and the deserts, and experienced some of that history firsthand.
I remember there was one time when my dad and I were standing on the banks of the Jordan, about to do a scene where he wades into the river and gives a little commentary between Bible stories - that was sort of the format of the film - and I saw my son who was then about 2 or 3 playing by the river and I thought.Oh my gosh, what an opportunity. I went and grabbed him and gave him an impromptu baptism. Dunked him in and somebody snapped a picture at that exact moment. I think that's in the special features in that DVD.
RWS: I know one earlier movie.Mountain Men.you wrote and your dad performed.
Fraser: I did.
RWS: That must have been really kind of intriguing. Did you picture your dad in the scene as you were writing?
Fraser: When I wrote that script, it was based on a novel. Some friends of mine who later started a company I'm sure you've heard of, called Castle Rock Entertainment, came to me and optioned it from me for about.I don't know.about $500. I though wow that's good money. [He laughs.]
And it was. I wrote the script and they sold it to Columbia Pictures. So we didn't know exactly who was going to be in it and how it would be made, but obviously I wanted my dad to do it.
Once he read it, he kind of jumped at the chance and he said, "Good! Yeah, let's do it!" And that was the easiest movie deal I ever made. I had no idea how difficult it actualy is and here I am still struggling away so many years later.
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RWS: Let's jump into the Ten Commandments and the Bible Stories project. I got a copy of both and they are incredibly remastered and repackaged. They are amazing. Especially the box design for the gift set for the Ten Commandments.
Fraser: Pretty cool. I showed that to my mom and it just blew her away. She was in tears.
They did a great job. When I saw that at the premier at the Egyptian Theater, I expected "good." I didn't expect "spectacular" on the big screen. Oftentimes the restoration will hold up on a small screen like a TV, but you put it on a giant screen, it's going to look a little fuzzy. It looked like you could step into the screen and join the character.
RWS: It is a pretty amazing feat. something that could only be done with today's technology, obviously.
Fraser: Yes. And I thought they were also true to the original "painterly look" with the vibrant colors and the beautiful lighting of the original. It doesn't look like a digitized thing. It looks like a proper film.
RWS: It does.
Fraser: And I'm so glad they did it. I think it's terribly important that they do this with all our classic films.
RWS: With all the things that your dad has done over the years, why these two?
Fraser: We are actually re-releasing on DVD several of our films. Warner's is re-releasing "Treasure Island" as well as "Antony & Cleopatra" and "MotherLoad," which are our films, later this year. I think Paramount's got a couple other things to do.
With the new technology it gives you obviously there is a good sound business reason to do it for the studios and they don't.they consult me, but they don't.I don't take part in their business decisions. They were very kind to involve me in "The Ten Commandments" and some of these other projects. I just think it's wonderful because there is a whole generation or two that hasn't really seen these things in their proper format and there is a big difference between VHS and DVD.
RWS: When you look at the Bible project, where you have four different stories that your Dad basically narrated, and with the Ten Commandments, is there a sort of a sense of legacy involved in these projects from your Dad's point of view? I know it's been a few years since his passing.
Fraser: Well I would like that this comes across. Obviously the thing has to speak for itself, it doesn't really matter what I say. It's what as my dad said, a film should always speak for itself and he hoped this one speaks to you. That was his standard speech.
I think that there is a legacy and I think his experience in Biblical films from "Ben Hur," "The Ten Commandments" to "The Greatest Story Ever Told," where he played John the Baptist, and now our production of the Bible. I think it's a continuity for him. It certainly reflects his own faith and I think reflects his experience as an artist, actor and a filmmaker. Hopefully that all comes across.
RWS: When you filmed the Bible project, you were on location in the Holy Land. Did that ignite the stories in a much more dramatic way in terms of engaging with the text?
Fraser: It did for me. [At one point] he's standing at the bottom of a canyon in the Negev desert, where there is a tiny trickle of water coming out and there is a little tiny plant growing under this trickle of water. He chose that episode to talk about the Garden of Eden. Obviously in a metaphorical sense here is this wonderful life giving water in the middle of this amazing dry hot desert.
Whether he's going to the place where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls or walking amongst the ruins of Jericho, he talks about those experiences in a very personal way. He wrote all of those commentaries. He and I worked on those together so it's not as if we went and hired some historian to write it. These are his personal reactions to the stories filmed in the place where it happened; so you couldn't ask for a better place then that I think.
RWS: I would think that this was important for more than just visual effect, but also for the encounter of your dad - well, the entire crew - with the places where the Bible was not just written, but where it actually was lived out.
Fraser: Well, that's exactly right. One day for example, we were filming in what is called the "Hall of the Last Supper" which is probably Crusader-era building, but nevertheless, here we are talking about the Last Supper of Jesus, and I went outside to take a little break and found myself one floor below in the Tomb of King David. So I had literally walked out of the New Testament and into the Old in about 30 seconds.
RWS: That's a little different than America, where you can be walking from a 1990's building to a 1950's building, isn't it?
Fraser: Yeah. That's the nature of the Holy Land. That's the nature of Jerusalem and we had to work and film, live there, and deal with all the different religious sects and different religions, indeed, from Jewish to Muslim to Christian and it worked surprisingly well.
RWS: How long did that project take?
Fraser: Well from start to finish, I would guess it took about 6 or 8 months, but we were in the Holy Land for about 2 or 3 months. I've been there before, but only as a tourist. To go and life and work in a place and work with the local people is a very different experience and we were fortunate to in that my entire life.
Mom and Dad took myself and my sister around whenever they could get us out of school to these wonderful locations around the world and we stayed, lived and worked there, as I say, so that was a marvelous kind of childhood for us.
RWS: So what's next on your list? What are you doing now?
Fraser: I've got something very different. I'm developing.actually just finishing a documentary about the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller.
Fraser: In Guinea in 1961 and a film made by a guy who went down there 10 years later looking for him. The film was never completed, never edited and it was lost but I found it.
We made a new film out of it and it's called "A Search for Michael Rockefeller" and we have a website you can go to that's called SearchforMichael.com and see the trailer.
RWS: Are you focusing a little bit more on a documentary style at this point?
Fraser: I will probably do a feature next because I just finished a documentary and it's a lot of work to do documentary. This one took me 2.5 years and we financed it ourselves so it was a huge labor of love.
RWS: Do you have an eye on a feature?
Fraser: Well to be honest I think the search for Michael Rockefeller would make a great feature. I think Michael Rockefeller is a really interesting character. He was not the dilettante that some people think of him. He was a real anthropologist and art collector.a very cool guy and died by unfortunate series of circumstances.
RWS: Is there anything that you'd like to add concerning the Ten Commandments or Bible Story project?
Fraser: Well the only thing I could add is that I think that my father's memory is being honored by the re-release of these pictures and I'm just thrilled to be able to contribute in some small way to that and sort of be a part of that as I say, what's not only our family history, but after all it's a big piece of Hollywood history as well.
RWS: Fraser, again thanks for your work on these two projects.
Fraser: You bet.
Randy Sly is the Associate Editor of Catholic Online and the CEO/Associate Publisher for the Northern Virginia Local Edition of Catholic Online (http://virginia.catholic.org). He is a former Archbishop of the Charismatic Episcopal Church who laid aside that ministry to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
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